The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan

A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.

It was amazing.

In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.

I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.

Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.

I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.

Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.

Build a world and live in it

Even a short piece of writing  belongs in a world. It might not be this world, but it is a world with laws of  its own. World building is the process of setting that all up in your head. Or  on paper, if that’s how you need to do it. Most of the world you build has to  stay off the pages of your writing. This is important to remember. A book that  trickles in the laws, facts and ideas of the world as you read it is great. One  that explains every aspect of the world as you go through it, isn’t. You’re  reading the book for the story, not to get your head around a new set of  laws.

All about the world (yawn)

I read the (unpublished) book of  an aspiring fantasy author once. In the first 25 pages, the main character and his best friend mounted horses and started travelling. As they travelled, we  found out about the genetic makeup of the people in the land, how they  calculated weights and differences and the comparative value of their money. Nothing really happened, it was all exposition and explanation. It  is really important that the author knows all of that stuff but the reader is seldom interested in it. It’s scaffolding and piping when what we really care about is the wallpaper and furniture.


I love the expression “world-building”. Shaun Tan used it (but did not coin it) at the Book Festival when talking about all the drawings that he does around characters and compositions. He talked about illustration but it applies equally to writing. The world we write about has to make sense, be logical and consistent. I have lots of material that sets up the world but will never make it into a story. When I create a character, they often (but not always) have a detailed back story that won’t make it into the main story.

My need to know is much greater than that of my readers.